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Dr. George Bragues publishes article on the economics of language

Dr. George Bragues

For a language to be vibrant, it not only has to have a base of speakers who grow up speaking it, but it has to have people who are willing to adopt it as a second or third language, usually for commercial or business reasons."

What are the forces at work that cause languages to rise and fall in usage over time? What if we looked at those linguistic trends through an economic lens? That’s a subject University of Guelph-Humber Interim Vice-Provost Dr. George Bragues explored in his scholarly article, “The Economics of Language: Implications for Portuguese,” recently published in the Portuguese Study Review.

We talked to Dr. Bragues about his research, his interest in Portuguese culture, and how everything in the world can be explained by economics.

Can you explain the concept of “the economics of language?”

Basically, it’s applying the model of economics – that human beings are trying to benefit themselves as much as they can at the lowest cost possible – and applying that model to the decision of whether or not to learn a language and become fluent in it.

Portuguese is among the Top 10 most-spoken languages on the planet. What leads you to believe that it’s likely to decline in usage over time?

It is currently ranked ninth in the world by total number of speakers. The total number of speakers includes those who learn it because they live in a country where Portuguese is the official language. They’re native speakers who grew up speaking it. Then there are those people who have chosen to adopt the language, either because they moved to a Portuguese speaking country or they’re doing it for business or personal reasons.

If much of your current group of speakers is made up of people who are in a Portuguese-speaking country, your chances for growth are limited. For a language to be vibrant, in order for a language to be widely used around the world, it not only has to have a base of speakers who grow up speaking it, but it has to have people who are willing to adopt it as a second or third language, usually for commercial purposes. They feel it will help them in their employment. Portuguese is limited in that respect. It’s far behind English and also French.

That’s the worry there – that it doesn’t have much growth potential outside of the already existing Portuguese-speaking world.

Where does your interest in Portuguese language and culture come from?

I was born in Portugal. While I came here to Canada when I was seven months old, I was brought up in a family where Portuguese was the chief spoken language. That was the case throughout my entire childhood and adolescence. There were occasions when I was younger when I went to school in Portugal. When I was in elementary school, we’d go there every winter. I would be there for two or three months attending Portuguese school, so I became quite knowledgeable in Portuguese and its vernacular in continental Portugal. So I’m a native Portuguese speaker. I learned English but that was outside the household at school with my friends.

I’ve always since had an interest in Portuguese because to this day I continue speaking Portuguese to my family, to my mother especially. I go to Portugal all the time. I’m usually there once a year and I speak Portuguese when I am. I have no problem navigating the language. I read Portuguese scholarly works, magazines, newspapers, I watch Portuguese television. I’m still very enmeshed in the Portuguese culture and therefore the language.

Is this the type of thing you might discuss in your course, Everyday Economics?

Yes. This would be one more topic in which the economic approach to studying human affairs could be applied. While language hasn’t been addressed in the course, I do think this reinforces the message of the course, which is that you can apply the economic approach – focusing on how people make decisions to maximize their utility and benefits subject to cost constraints – to human affairs in many, many areas.

It reinforces the message of the utility of economics outside the areas we typically associate with economics, like business and industry.

Learn more about Everyday Economics.